Lady Hamilton was at one point the most famous Briton in the world. Her rich life story is a tale akin to today’s coming of age movies, a true Cinderella of the late 18th Century. From a poor daughter of a blacksmith, she turned into a muse, a ground-breaking artist in her own right, a political influencer and the first dame to receive the Maltese cross.
To speak of Emma Hamilton is to first speak of her time as Amy Lyon. She was born in 1765 in the industrial hub of Cheshire in the North of England. Her parents, an illiterate blacksmith and maid, were so poor, Amy Lyon received no formal education and was said to have to sell coal on the roadside to passing tradesmen.
From Maid to Muse
Map of Cheshire in the 18th Century
At the age of 12, she was sent to work as a maid for a local surgeon, then in London where she performed in theatre, and for a quack medical establishment posing as the goddess of health, Hygiena. It’s there that she become known as Emma Hart and caught the eye of her key to climb the echelons of society – aristocratic men.
One of those men was Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, who hired her as a hostess and entertainer at a prolonged stag party when she was just 15. Imagine Scott Fitzgerald’s endless parties but in the 18th century.
“She is having to play the game that women in the 18th century were often forced to, which is to make themselves sexually desirable to men who had power and authority and the ability to transform their lives,” says Quintin Colville, who curated an exhibition on her.
“In that respect, Emma is no different from thousands of others.”
At 16, she had a child by Sir Fetherstonhaugh but gave up her daughter on condition that she was taken in by another aristocratic parliamentarian, Charles Greville, who is said to have refined her manners and her enunciation à la My Fair Lady. She became a refined muse, her beauty captured by Greville’s friend, painter George Romney.
It was then that Emma became Romney’s lifelong obsession and subject to his most famous portraits, propelling her to become one of London’s biggest celebrities. Emma was witty, an ideal beauty of the age, intelligent and mysterious – who was this young woman detached from any noble upbringing?
Two years later, Emma was cast off once more. She was sent to Greville’s uncle in Naples, only later finding out she was sent intended to be his mistress.
Emma took every turn in her life as an opportunity. She married Greville’s uncle, the much-older Sir William. He was a great collector of antiquities, who collected another in the form of this young woman. In Naples, she embraced her Italian life, developing her own avant-garde art form called the attitudes and befriended Maria Carolina, the Queen of Naples and Sicily.
And so came Lady Hamilton
Portraits by George Romney
Freshly married at the age of 21, Amy Hart became Lady Hamilton. Already known around Europe for her artistic contributions, this was also the height of her political influencer career.
Queen Maria Carolina’s husband, King Ferdinand I, was apathetic to the tumultuous political affairs of the time, and was only interested in hunting and whores, leaving the Queen to act as a political power.
Emma and the Queen are said to have worked together often, standing against the threat of invasion from the new French Republic, fresh out of a revolution that beheaded Marie Antoinette, the Queen’s sister. There were even rumours of them having an affair.
Meeting Lord Nelson, the start of an unlikely menage-a-trois
Lady Hamilton and Horatio Nelson, Naples by Frank Moss Bennet, 1943
British navy commander, Lord Horatio Nelson, a living legend for leading the victorious battle in the Nile, helped evacuate the Hamiltons and the Neapolitan royals to Sicily to escape the French mob in 1798. An affair between Emma and Nelson began. But this is not a moment of betrayal – the ageing Sir William actually endorsed the courtship, and the unlucky menage-a-trois travelled throughout Europe and set up home together, Emma even fell pregnant with Nelson’s child.
A saving grace to the starved Maltese
As the closet political confidence of Queen Maria Carolina, she acted as an important pawn, conveying messages from the Queen to Nelson and vice versa. There are a number of accounts of Lady Hamilton’s influence, one of which made her the first dame to receive the Maltese cross.
While the Neopolitan royal court remained safe from French upheavals in Sicily, a small island to the South was caught in the eye of the revolution. The Maltese were under French occupation and grew increasingly frustrated after they looted their churches and forced their occupiers into the fortified capital of Valletta. The islanders looked to the Britons to help them rid their colonisers.
Nelson’s close friend Captain Alexander Ball, was ordered to take command of a blockade of French supply ships in October 1798. Unfortunately, this meant the Maltese were starved of food while the French tucked into the capital’s grain silos.
An unfortunate effect of the sustained British blockade was that the native islanders, trapped outside Valletta, were being starved of food, while the French helped themselves to the capital’s grain silos. Their situation had become critical by January 1799.
Ball, moved by their plight, dug into his own pockets to provide some relief, but the thousands of citizens needed more than he could fork out. The Maltese even petitioned to King Ferdinand I, Queen Maria Carolina’s husband, to help, but their calls were left unanswered.
Emma, who understood the plights of being poor from her own childhood, managed to send three ships filled with corn, including some of her own stock, together with £7,000 from Queen Maria Carolina.
Her generosity to relieve the Maltese people’s famine was recognised by the Russian Czar, who made her a made a Dame of Malta (for men it would have been a Knight of Malta). While she didn’t possess any assets or titles in her own right, this title was her own, and she becomes the first women in history to be granted the Maltese cross.
Nelson’s favourite portrait of Emma was wearing the Maltese cross, painted in 1800 in Dresden by J. Schmidt. He hung it in his cabin on the famous ship called the Victory.
Lady Hamilton in history
“Love-à-la-mode, or Two dear friends”, an early 19th-century caricature by James Gillray, reportedly depicting a scandalous rumour told about Emma, Lady Hamilton (Nelson’s mistress), and Queen Maria Carolina of Naples.
Lady Hamilton’s life is a story of one woman’s ambition to go beyond the social castes in 18th century England. But while her enchanting beauty and drive got her mixing with the highest echelons of society, it could only get her so far. Emma died in poverty, just weeks short of her 50th birthday, in Calais, where she fled to escape her creditors.
She lived beyond Sir William and Lord Nelson, who failed to include her in their wills before their deaths.
Entering the more gravitas Victorian era, Emma’s reputation was one of a promiscuous siren or scarlet women, while Nelson’s was solidified as a legend.
“But she was never accepted, even in Naples,” Colville said. “Elite society in Britain would never think of Emma as one of them. Because of her humble origins, it was not possible. The best Emma could hope for was praise and tolerance and grudging respect. Nothing she could do would make her one of the beau monde.”
Still, her legacy remains as a stubborn woman of beauty, strive and intelligence, whose only limits were those encased in life were brought on by her gender.
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